Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano), Mahler Chamber Orchestra / Sir George Benjamin
Knussen The Way to Castle Yonder Op.21a (1988-90)
Purcell (transc. Benjamin) Three Consorts (1680) [World premiere]
Ravel Piano Concerto in G major (1929-31)
Benjamin Concerto for Orchestra (2021) [BBC co-commission: World premiere]
Royal Albert Hall, London
Monday 30 August 2021
Written by Richard Whitehouse; pictures BBC / Chris Christodoulou
The cancellation of last year’s Proms meant the loss of several pieces by George Benjamin in recognition of his 60th birthday. Tonight’s concert, featuring the Mahler Chamber Orchestra with whom this composer-conductor has often collaborated, provided something of a redress.
The programme (its hour-long duration not unreasonably given without interval) began with The Way to Castle Yonder, a brief yet potent ‘potpourri’ from Oliver Knussen’s second opera Higglety Pigglety Pop! as amply conveys the aura of winsome yet ominous playfulness that suffuses the larger work. While they enjoyed a 40-year friendship, Benjamin’s own aesthetic is appreciably removed from that of the older composer so that a detachment, even aloofness was evident – without, however, detracting from this music’s always deceptive whimsicality.
Transcriptions of Renaissance and Baroque sources have been a mainstay of post-war British music, Three Consorts following an established pattern with Benjamin’s take on these Purcell miniatures underlining their intricate textures and piquant harmonies. The (to quote Benjamin) ‘‘visionary moment of harmonic stasis near the middle’’ of In nomine 1 went for little, with the ‘‘mesmerising intersection of line and harmony’ in Fantasia 7 effecting a Stravinskian objectivity, but the understated humour of Fantasia upon One Note was tellingly delineated.
Pierre-Laurent Aimard then joined Benjamin and the MCO in a performance of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major that, though it had precision and refinement in abundance, was almost entirely lacking in the qualities that define this music’s essential persona. The opening Allegramente evinced a desiccated manner with such as the blues-inflected coyness of its transitions or the heart-stopping stasis prior to the reprise of the second theme going for little, while the central Adagio took on an all-enveloping inertia as it unfolded – the inward rapture of its expressive apex then the pathos of its ensuing cor anglais dialogue all too enervated in their repose. The closing Presto drew an incisive response from pianist and orchestra alike, but here again any sense of this music’s more provocative demeanour was absent from the prevailing stolidity.
Aimard returned for an animated reading of Benjamin’s early Relativity Rag which provided an admirable entree into the world premiere of the latter’s Concerto for Orchestra. Unfolding as a continuous span (a pause just past its mid-point may be structurally meaningful) across a little over 15 minutes, this is typical of Benjamin’s recent music in its systematic – but rarely predictable – formal trajectory and alluring emotional reticence. The various instruments are highlighted singly or in groups in what becomes an intensifying progression, albeit without a tangible momentum, to a climax which brings first violins to the fore, before subsiding into a close of serene equivocation. Superbly realized by the MCO, for whom it was written, this is a thoughtful addition to a genre in which ‘display’ has all too readily become the watchword.
One final thought – at his untimely death, Oliver Knussen had several large-scale orchestral works in progress and maybe even nearing completion. Might it not still be feasible to bring at least one of the pieces to performance? The UK music scene would be all the richer for it.
You can find more information on the BBC Proms at the festival’s homepage. Click on the composer’s names for more information on Sir George Benjamin, and on the performers’ names for more information on Pierre-Laurent Aimard and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra.